Last night I had the honor and privilege of participating as a panel member in an incredible community forum at the Saxton Middle School in the Patchogue-Medford school district in Suffolk County, New York. I have been asked to share the content of my comments so those who were unable to attend could have access to them. As I prepare and post this, I am almost at a loss for words to describe the unbelievable energy that permeated the entire school last night as thousands gathered to make their presence known and their voices heard. Have no doubt, we are making a difference. I would remind those who attended, and those who could not, that gathering at a forum is a first step, but the work continues now as we take this energy and channel it into contacting our elected officials until they finally understand the urgency of our appeals. We must be relentless!
Below is the text from my speech last night:
When I thought about what I would say tonight I remembered my earlier years in education and I felt as though my professional life was passing before my eyes. Maybe that is fitting because what we are experiencing in our classrooms in recent years feels like the death of teaching and learning as we once knew them. As I considered the massive changes I have seen in the educational landscape in well over twenty years as an educator, I found myself first focusing on what has not changed, and I want to begin with that reminder.
What hasn’t changed is the reason why those of us working in education chose this profession. We became educators because we love children. We love teaching. We believe that the purpose of education is to prepare children for life, to create thinkers and learners and to find the gifts in every child so that each of them can go forward and live happy and productive lives. What hasn’t changed is that NO teacher EVER walks into a classroom asking how we can prepare children to be widgets in a corporate world that wants obedient, passive workers who exist only to create maximum profits for their employers.
Because I have spent the most recent part of my career in a support position teaching students who receive AIS services, and because this June my retirement will mark the end of my career in public education, the memories of some of my earlier teaching experiences are especially close to my heart. I’m going to tell you a little about those experiences. Every year I read Judith Viorst’s poem, “If I Were in Charge of the World”, to my fourth grade class. My students wrote their own humorous poetic views of what their world could be if they were in charge and we created a class book from their poems. They wrote about a world of unlimited ice cream, more television and fun and games. They did not write about college and careers and that was as it should be. They were only nine years old.
When they learned about persuasive techniques used in advertising, they were inspired and engaged as they demonstrated their learning by working in groups to invent their own products and write commercials using the techniques they had learned. We videotaped their commercials so they could share them with their families. None of these activities included a multiple choice component because real life is not a multiple choice test. We think outside the box and not inside the bubble.
Science was taught through discovery and hands on experiences and students did learn. The only experiments taking place in our classrooms were those conducted by students, not those being conducted on them as human subjects by the likes of Bill Gates who doesn’t seem to see the problem with waiting a decade to determine if these so-called reforms will work. Of course he doesn’t – it isn’t happening to his kids.
Before corporate education reform most students came to school excited to see what new project would capture their hearts and minds every day. Without the pressure to teach to tests we had ample time for these activities. Our focus was on engagement, and that has sadly been replaced in some places by a focus on compliance. They are not the same thing. I am encouraged to know that most teachers are trying to resist the pressures of the testing mentality and packaged instruction and are still fitting as much creativity as possible into their days. But this becomes more and more difficult as requirements increase, and as stakes attached to meaningless test scores become higher.
Before the tentacles of corporate education reform reached into our schools, teachers were decision makers in our classrooms. Pearson did not define learning and decide what knowledge we should share. We decided how best to teach and assess our students because we were the ones who knew them and what they needed. We were not micro-managed. We were not scripted or expected to teach from modules. We knew what was developmentally appropriate and our teaching reflected that knowledge. We didn’t have pacing guides to rush us through instruction to prepare students for tests. We not only managed to teach everything that was required, but we did it at a more relaxed pace and with the time to slow down and adjust our teaching to respond to our students’ learning. And our students learned.
Before the imposition of the Common Core Standards our teaching reflected what most students could successfully do. And there was no question that curriculum could be modified for those students who needed it. We know that success looks different for every student, because they are individuals. Standardized children are expected to learn at the same pace and that is not a reality if one knows anything about how children develop. We, as educators, know this. But standardization is expected now. It seems these reforms leave many children behind.
My classroom library was quite large and my students viewed reading as a very pleasurable activity, not as a means to prepare for a high stakes test. The current insistence on decontextualizing reading and making it about stringing together words extracted from text as “evidence” because David Coleman, a man who has never taught anyone anything, decided THIS is the way reading should be taught and assessed, does a huge disservice to the children in our classrooms.
I am almost afraid to mention math because of the passion it brings out in parents who cannot understand why children in the younger grades are being forced to complete work that is developmentally inappropriate, causing stress and frustration for entire families. Contrary to the reform narrative, the math we taught prior to the Common Core Standards did provide conceptual and foundational knowledge and was not just rote learning of formulas and computation methods. It certainly worked well enough for all of us, didn’t it? The sudden amnesia about how we taught effectively prior to these new standards astounds me. Before the Common Core my students used manipulatives, and they solved complex problems. The work they did was developmentally appropriate and enabled most students to experience success. This is not the case now as so many children are struggling, and contrary to many of the supporters of the Common Core, I do not see this kind of struggle as productive, I see it as abusive. Children should not be crying over homework.
And then there is assessment. The word “assess” comes from the Latin word assidēre, which means “to sit beside”. And that is how I see the way we once assessed our students. We evaluated their learning continuously by observing them, and by using tests that we created to reflect the learning in our classrooms. We sat beside them and watched as they demonstrated their learning through active engagement across the curriculum. Although students in my class took a standardized achievement test each year, it was NOT a high-stakes test. Students did bubble in answers, but the tests were brief, and the questions were appropriate. Those assessments were not filled with tricks, ambiguities and product placements, and they included no components to be sent out and scored for $11.00 an hour by non-educators hired on Craigslist. We did not spend weeks on test prep for these assessments. We barely spoke about them. They certainly were not the focus of our teaching or our school year. And we never administered tests which were so “secret” we were forbidden to discuss them with our colleagues or with the very students whose learning they claimed to assess. I never saw children vomit, wet their pants, have nosebleeds, or just shut down and sob during testing. I never saw teachers cry after testing because they had watched their students suffer. I have witnessed all of this in recent years.
We all know that what is tested is what is taught. With the high-stakes attached to reading and math tests, the curriculum has been narrowed to focus on the tested areas, crowding out the rich instruction we once had in social studies and in science. In many cases, current reforms have decimated instruction in art and music, either because of time constraints or because of funds diverted to conform to mandates. How many future artists, musicians, poets, novelists, or inventors will be lost because we no longer nurture the gifts within during the formative years?
In my other role as a teacher educator for 19 years, I am distressed that my college students may never experience what our profession was when we were respected as professionals who knew better than politicians and corporate profiteers what was best for our students. These new teachers may never teach in classrooms that are the joyous place where I began my teaching career; where many of us once taught. They may never understand why I used to get up every morning excited to go to work. I used to tell my college students that I have the best job in the world. Now I tell them I used to have the best job in the world, before it all changed.
In the film Race to Nowhere, psychologist Dr. Wendy Mogel says, “I am afraid that our children are going to sue us for stealing their childhoods.” Our children are not widgets, they are not human capital, and they are not cannon fodder in the political and corporate war on public education. It is NOT their role to be ready for college or careers during their childhoods. Childhood is for play, for socialization and exploration and joy. We need to reclaim that. Our children and grandchildren need us to reclaim that for them. You know what to do.
REFUSE THE TESTS!